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'Criticising Govt Isn't Defaming India': Sam Pitroda on Rahul Gandhi's US Visit

Rahul Gandhi is set to visit New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco to interact with Indian diaspora

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"When we talk about something, we are not really criticising India. We are criticising Indian government, don't confuse that," said Sam Pitroda, chairperson of Indian Overseas Congress (IOC), as he gears up to welcome Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for his week-long visit in the United States.

Months after facing massive backlash from the Indian government for allegedly 'defaming' India and its democracy during his last visit to London, Gandhi is set to visit New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco to speak to various stakeholders of the Indian diaspora in the US.

His London visit in March 2023 sparked a political storm in India with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) disrupting the Parliament proceedings demanding his apology for 'defaming India on foreign soil.' "Questions were raised on Indian democracy in London," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a public rally in Karnataka on 12 March.

Following how the government played up his last diaspora address, does the Congress look to be cautious in the US? What's the party's expectations from the event? Does the Congress look to counter the 'anti-India' narrative against the party while trying to tap in to the diaspora supportive of the prime minister?

Pitroda spoke to The Quint on the various aspects of the visit.

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What, according to you, is the agenda of Mr Rahul Gandhi's visit to the US this time?

It is a jam-packed programme — two days in San Francisco, two days in Washington, two days in New York to have an open, honest conversation on a variety of topics from democracy to employment to economy to, human rights to freedom, etc. In Washington, he's addressing the National Press Club. He'll be addressing a think tank, and in New York, he'll be meeting some very interesting intellectuals, artists, and will also have a big NRI event with Indian Overseas Congress. Challenges, economy, unemployment — these are all the issues of great concern to global community with India being the largest democracy in the world. We sincerely believe that India democracy is all about larger global good, and it is important for us to engage with the global community interested in democracy.

It is believed, and it is also seen in various statistics that there is a particular kind of idea of India that the diaspora has about India. Is the visit aimed at trying to change that idea and also the US establishment's thoughts or opinions about the country?

No, it is not a changing anybody's mind. It is about representing facts as we see them. It is our version of the democracy that we believe in. Our idea of democracy has great deal of focus on inclusion and sustainability. A lot of people blindly follow it based on religion. We don't believe in the 'Hindutva' idea of India. We are Hindus, I'm a Hindu but that doesn't allow me to disrespect somebody else. That doesn't give me license to tell them what to do, what to eat, what to wear, or how to pray.

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You spoke about the government trying to pitch Hindutva as the major ideology of India. Do you think that kind of a thought process or a sentiment is there in the diaspora which the Congress is looking to bring a course correction to?

No, we are not here to bring a course correction to anything. But yes, I know that in Indian Diaspora there is a group that believes in Hindutva, tradition, religion as the core idea of India. Then, you have another group of people who are not very vocal but they believe in a bigger idea of India. Media gives play to just one group and as a result, people think that's the only view within the NRIs. That's not true. There are thousands and thousands of people who are very capable abroad — in the US, Europe, Australia and other places who run big companies, universities, professors, teachers, scientists, and engineers — they have a different view.

You said that facts are going to be represented but we often see that the BJP or the government of India tries to portray these visits and the talks as anti-India or defaming India on international soil. Does the visit look to counter that narrative in any way?

No, the point is, India cannot be defamed by anybody. India is a country of great history and heritage. This whole notion of India getting hurt doesn't make sense to me. A particular Indian may get hurt but you can't hurt India. And when we talk about something, we are not really criticising India. We are criticising the Indian government, don't confuse that. Indian government is not India because there are other governments in India beside the BJP. I live in America. I lived here for 60 years, and I can criticize America. That doesn't mean I'm against America. What kind of a notion is that? What you're telling me is don't think, just follow the party line. That is the democracy I don't want.

We have recently seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Australia and the kind of response he got from the diaspora. According to surveys, statistics, there is a lot of support for the Prime Minister abroad. What message does Mr Gandhi aim to give while his visit in the US to people who are supportive of the Prime Minister?

No, I'm glad people are supportive of Prime Minister because he's India's Prime Minister. He is getting support as the Prime Minister of a country of 1.5 billion and he should get support. I am proud of the fact that Indian prime minister gets support. Let's not confuse that with the idea of India that we are discussing, they are two separate things. I respect the Prime Minister of India. He should get the support and recognition but the idea of India that he and his government represent is very different. With his support and with an open mind, we should have a conversation.

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A recent survey by CSDS shows that the support for the Congress in India is on the rise. Do you see a similar kind of rise in the support within the diaspora in the US?

Well, the US diaspora doesn't vote, but they have influence on the votes because there are a large number of people who listen to them at back home — their friends, their family, their parents and others. I think Rahul Gandhi's padayatra has really presented the real Rahul Gandhi to people around. Rahul Gandhi has been discredited by campaigns, by lot of funding behind media who make him look like what he is not. So far, the yatra has been able to bring the real Rahul Gandhi in front of large number of people. He could bypass media, which we believe is biased and reach out to people directly. Fatigue is setting in. People are beginning to recognise that to some extent India has been hijacked.

The political developments in India have picked up in pace with talks for Opposition unity and all the developments that are taking place with the Congress party after the party's recent victory in Karnataka which was a massive mandate. What kind of preparations and expectations does the party have from this event? 

Well, we are excited about the victory in Karnataka. We think it is a major milestone and we have to build on it. It is the beginning and not an end. We can't sit tight and enjoy the victory because the road ahead is much more complicated, difficult and long. So, this is the right time to really consolidate all our gains, think of the next few state elections and then think of 2024. So, the basic issue here is the idea of democracy. But the path we are on which is predominantly based on polarised politics, which is fundamentally based on undermining institutions, killing civil society and hurting scientific, logical, rational mindset is of concern to many people. You got to have a quite calm, civilised, respectful discourse. And I think we get that space abroad much more so than we get at home, unfortunately. When we went to London, India Television covered it for four days as it was still conversation, but there isn't much I can do about it, with all due respect to them. That's their view. I respect that view. I don't subscribe to it.

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You spoke about the attacks on democracy that are currently happening in the country and the major points that the Opposition keeps raising — idea of majority of one particular religion, the concept of misuse of central agencies. Do you think these will be the agendas of Mr. Gandhi's address this time, and do you think the diaspora's perspective towards this has changed? 

No, I don't think it is an agenda. The agenda is to have a conversation. That is the agenda - open, frank, honest conversation. It is not to change anybody's mind. It is not a propaganda. We are not here for a propaganda. We are here to learn, not to convert anybody to anything, we don't do that. It is for people to decide. We agree to disagree, but with respect, with dignity.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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